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Alex Stamos: How do we preserve free speech in the era of fake news?

A Stanford fellow and cybersecurity expert says social media platforms have democratized the spread of information, but questions remain about its implications for human rights.

Illustration of many heads talking

There is a tension emerging between free speech and the regulation of social media sites. | iStock/Kubkoo

It’s nothing we haven’t already heard — the news you read is being shaped by the ubiquitous presence of social media. So-called “fake news” spread by bots and social media may continue to influence American elections and, ultimately, democracy.

Alex Stamos, the former chief security officer at Facebook and an adjunct professor with Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, explained at a recent live taping of “The Future of Everything” that the emergence of social media has made everyone a potential publisher. “We will never go back to the era in which a small number of people control the flow of information,” Stamos says.

While social media can be credited with democratizing the dissemination of information, these platforms have also become a hotbed of false and misleading content spread by domestic and foreign actors. Solving the “fake news” problem is extremely difficult, Stamos explains. “It turns out that regulating social media actually means asking social media companies to regulate people’s freedom of speech.” The danger here, Stamos emphasizes, is that this regulation will be done in a way that benefits the short-term interests of a company and does not uphold basic human rights.

You can listen to the Future of Everything on iTunes, Google Podcasts, SoundCloud, Spotify, Stitcher or via Stanford Engineering Magazine.